Donald O’Brien is a first-term District 5 incumbent running against Bob Jones in the Republican primary on Aug. 18. The winner of that primary will face two independents in the Nov. 3 general election, Denise Calderwood and Paul Anderson.
Three seats are up on the commission in this election cycle. In District 3, incumbent Republican Dave Sullivan faces a challenge by Republican Kim Carney, the former Flagler Beach city commissioner. Because that race drew only two Republicans, it will be a universal primary, meaning that all registered voters may cast a ballot on Aug. 18. There will be no runoff. The winner will be seated in November. Two-term Commissioner Charlie Ericksen in District 1 has opted not to run again. Republican Andy Dance, the long-time school board member, will face Democrat Corinne Hermle in the Nov. 3 general election. Neither has drawn a primary opponent.
Flagler County Commission members serve four years. They’re paid $55,387 a year.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges conducted by email and on the record. The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document any claim or accusation. Undocumented claims are edited out. Answers are also edited for length, redundancy, relevance and, where possible, accuracy. If a candidate does not answer a question or appears to be evading a question, that’s noted.
But it’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Critical issues
- School cops
- Beach rebuilding
- Beach rebuilding
- Environmental protection
- Economic development
- Jerry Cameron
- Social media
- Background check
Place and Date of Birth: Bethpage, N.Y., Nov. 7, 1959.
Current job: Insurance Agent, Small Business Owner.
Party Affiliation: Republican .
Net Worth: See financial disclosure.
Website and Social Media: https://www.electdonaldobrien.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DonaldOBrienFL/, https://twitter.com/donaldobrienfl
1. Tell us who you are as a person—what human qualities and shortcomings you’ll bring to the board, and what makes you qualified to serve—or to unseat an incumbent, as the case may be. Please give us real-life examples to illustrate your answer.
I believe it is a combination of tangible and intangible qualifications, experiences and skills. My tangible skill set includes 40 years in the financial services sector serving in positions of increasing responsibility, including as Chief Financial Officer of two community banks. For the last 15 years I have been a small business owner. Additionally, I earned a B.S. degree in business administration and an M.B.A majoring in finance. I have served on many community, civic and nonprofit boards–not just as a resume builder, but in positions requiring responsibility and commitment. My 30 years of community service, aside from providing me personal fulfillment, has afforded me the opportunity to truly learn the community, interact with community and government leaders, and experience the diversity of Flagler County. I try to be informed about local issues and I am engaged with my fellow community members and elected officials. I have done this by attending as many City Council/Commission meetings in each municipality every month for the last four years. I have developed personal relationships with almost every elected official in Flagler County. During my time as County Commissioner, I have engaged with the Florida Association of Counties to take advantage of their continuing education opportunities, and I have earned the Certified and Advanced County Commissioner designations.
With respect to the intangibles, I possess the life experiences that help me relate and empathize with many Flagler County residents. Whether it is dealing with sick and dying parents, settling estates, senior health care challenges, raising children, being a grandparent, success and failure in business and dealing with personal financial hardships, these experiences help me to relate to others and provide the filter through which I make decisions. My wife, Wendi, and I have been married for 39 years and have two adult children and two granddaughters.
Empathy, reliability, insightfulness and a love of life-long learning are some of the human qualities that I have been told that I display. My parents instilled in me the importance of being respectful of others’ opinions and feelings, as well as staying humble. While I am not verbose and loud, I am reservedly passionate about things that are important to me. I am passionate about my family, my long-term relationships with friends, my career, and business and my community. I get high personal satisfaction from serving others. Serving others defines me.
As a County Commissioner, I have been told that I am reserved and introspective, I tend not to speak at meetings unless I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation. I try to listen carefully and empathically. I am an analytical person by nature. I do my best to be informed about issues and current business and take the time to research and ask questions of affected parties. I try to be self-aware and not agenda-driven.
My best quality is being responsible and determined. Anyone who knows me understands that I am goal driven to the point that I write my personal and professional goals down and carry them with me all the time. In business, I have built my career on always striving to do more than my job description and seeking out greater responsibilities. I always try to “think like an owner.”
My worst quality is that, at times, I am non-confrontational and not aggressive enough. I also over-commit which causes me to put too much pressure on myself and others. This has impacted me in business when I did not meet client expectations or if my business partners or employees were expecting me get something done within a specific timeframe and I did not meet that expectation.
Jill Woolbright, District 1
Maria Barbosa, District 5
Dave Sullivan, District 3
Donald O'Brien, District 5
Sims Jones (Dist. 1)
Ed Danko (Dist. 1)
Nick Klufas (Dist. 3)
Cornelia Manfre (Dist. 3)
I would like to address your question from a short-term and long-term perspective.
In the short-term, the most critical issue is how the County government continues to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been impacts to our budgets from having to utilize reserves and unexpected expenses. I do believe we will be reimbursed for most of it by the state and federal governments, but we still must finance it in the short-term. Our service delivery levels have also been impacted. County administration needs to continue to be a leader and work closely with a countywide policy team that includes the municipal, health department and constitutional officer stakeholders. The County Commission needs to provide direction and the right level of balance and guidance to administration that takes into account the need to keep the economy open while reinforcing the activities and restrictions that are needed to keep our citizens safe and minimize the spread of infections. I believe this will be with us and will impact decisions and operations for the remainder of this year. I have not had a cavalier attitude about this — it worries me every day.
The County Administrator has identified and started to brief the Commission on challenges that we are facing in Fire & Rescue Services. The root cause is lack of focus on funding and planning in the past that is now impacting us and will continue to grow in significance as our County population continues to grow. The two major issues are staffing and much-needed upgrades and improvements to multiple facilities as they are below modern-day standards. My role will be to provide leadership to make sure that we develop the plan in coordination with the other municipalities, especially Palm Coast, since there is much overlap, provide the best funding options, such as the possibility of a fire district, and to hold administration responsible so that it gets done in a timely manner.
Building toward fiscal soundness and having proper reserves is another important issue, and the commission needs to provide leadership and focus on this issue. While it is not “sexy” and controversial and doesn’t make headlines, the day-to-day decisions on spending, budgeting and financial management are critical to the County’s future. Having reserves for future emergencies is critical. A strong financial position lowers borrowing costs and allows for more orderly planning. One of the issues I ran on four years ago was the fact that County Administration was constantly in reactive mode on almost all decisions. We are now on the way to being more proactive-based in our decisions, but we have more work to do.
The hiring of the next County Administrator and supporting her/his building of a senior leadership team will be a critical issue over the next few years. As Administrator Jerry Cameron helps the commission resolve a host of current issues we have been dealing with over the last few years and the challenges of the Covid pandemic wind down, our focus will shift toward succession. My vision is that we do this in an un-rushed manner with an extensive search. For some additional details on my position on this, please see my answers to your question No. 11.
Coastline protection and flood mitigation through planning and project implementation will continue to be an important focus of County government activities for many years. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has declared our shoreline critical and vulnerable. As of this writing, I am still hopeful that we will move the Army Corps project forward and keep it on track. I also support our efforts to continue the non-federalized beach re-nourishment project that would be north of the pier (18th Street North to 6th Street South) along with south of 28th Street South down to Gamble Rogers State Park. The sand material for this project would come from the same dredge that will bring the sand in for the Army Corps project, basically taking advantage of economies of scale, as the federal government (Department of the Interior) will not charge for the sand material. I will continue to assist in lobbying efforts to help acquire the state and federal funding needed to complete the non-federal portion.
We have begun the process of studying flood control and drainage in the western portion of the County. That project needs to stay on track and eventually, as plans are developed, it will need to be implemented and funded. I intend to keep focus on this with Administration and make sure we involve the stakeholders, including the agricultural businesses and landowners.
Tucked away in your thankfully detailed answer are the words “fire district,” which also means tax district–meaning that, residents would pay a new tax. Many local governments have enacted it. Explain to us how it would be enacted in Flagler–by commission vote? By electoral referendum?–and whether, in the political and economic climate of the next four years, the local electorate would be willing to support something like that, given that the bulk of your electorate is in palm Coast, where existing fire impact fees and the city’s budget support the fire department and might see a county fire fee as superfluous (the more ideological and common if inaccurate term is double-taxation, inaccurate since the county is responsible for the city’s ambulance services).
There are different models that work across the state.
One option is an Emergency Fire Rescue Services and Facilities Surtax. This is a local option sales tax that would have to be done with an interlocal agreement on proportional revenue sharing with all the municipalities and would require an offsetting reduction in ad valorem property tax collections that are budgeted to fire rescue services. This would be done by referendum
The other option is a fire district funded by ad valorem assessments for the unincorporated areas of the county. This can be done by super majority vote of the commission if the funds are used for operations or referendum if bonding was involved for facilities. In my opinion this would also have to have a corresponding reduction in ad valorem taxes.
These options are strategic and still need a lot of study and public input. I am not advocating for either option or do I have enough information at this point. I only provide them as an example of the planning that needs to happen and as an illustration that this is but one of the many challenges facing a growing county why we need serious, competent, and educated leadership and elected officials to make good decisions for our future.
3. Evaluate the county’s response to the coronavirus emergency. As of this writing, the county has not mandated the use of masks in public places, though it’s in the commission’s power to do so. Tell us how you’d vote on a mask mandate, and explain your answer, citing appropriate scientific authorities.
While there is always room for improvement, I think the County has done a good job in response to the Covid pandemic. I am pleased with the coordination we have had with the municipalities, health department and constitutional officers, most importantly Sheriff Rick Staly. I credit this to the hard work of staff, especially Emergency Services Director Jonathan Lord.
I recognize that during the last three months there has been some differences of opinion between the political leaders as to timing on closing down, re-opening, beach access, etc., but I respect the opinions of the other leaders. I truly believe that they have the best interest and safety of the citizens in mind, considering the differences as part of the normal debate that happens with different jurisdictions.
I believe our approach to mask wearing has been correct. We have communicated the importance of wearing masks at all times whenever you can’t maintain social distancing. We continue to make that a priority in all our communications, and we practice this at all our County facilities. Everyone should follow CDC guidelines for hand-washing, mask wearing and social distancing. I practice them myself. I also believe that an ordinance (not a resolution) mandating this would be very difficult to enforce and would put law enforcement in a very difficult position. Our approach of education and reinforcement is the right approach.
Now that Florida is the nation’s leading hot spot and that numbers have risen significantly in Flagler as well, with a positivity rate to match (meaning community spread, not increased testing, largely explains the higher numbers), while some states and most European countries have tamed the disease, what could we have done better here, and more specifically–referring to your proactive note in an earlier question–where should the county have been more proactive–a question with equal relevance in light of future potential waves of this disease, absent a vaccine?
As I stated in my original answer, I think our response has been measured and correct. I do not know that any local government could’ve been proactive to this pandemic (outside of normal emergency planning and preparation) as the situation and flow of information from experts as well as the state and federal governments changes seemingly daily.
4. Commissioners like to say they won’t raise taxes or will keep taxes, or at least tax rates, flat. How do you define a tax increase—as keeping the rate the same or as exceeding the rollback rate? Adopting your definition of an increase, are you against property tax increases? What three specific line items would you cut from this year’s proposed budget to keep the property tax where you’d want it?
Legal definition of a tax increase is any increase above the rollback rate as defined by statute. My philosophy is to be fiscally conservative. I communicate with County Administration that government should live within its means, use growth (additional taxable value from new construction) to pay for needed additional services and to try and build the budget from the ground up each year, an attempt at zero-based budgeting. I look at the overall rate of spending and growth rather than just tax rates, a holistic approach, recognizing that there are two sides to the equation. I have not voted for a millage increase in my three budget votes and do not anticipate that I ever would. I would rather make hard decisions on the spending side before having to vote for a millage increase. At the same time, I believe you have to be a realist and you never know if a significant natural disaster or some other economic scenario may cause the need for increased tax rates for any given year.
This fiscal year’s proposed budget looks like it will result in a .10 mil decrease in rate. Given the challenges this year and the pressure on reserves due to the pandemic, I am fine with that.
5. State law requires armed security in every public school. Flagler has chosen to have a School Resource Officer at its schools. The district and the county essentially split the cost. But the county doesn’t have to assume that security cost. Would you reduce the county’s share? Alternately, do you pledge to preserve that split for the duration of your term?
The current agreement has worked, and it has been built into our respective budgets. As long as the cooperation with the school district remains intact, I am not opposed to keeping the current formula as is. I do not make pledges. I give my philosophy and hopefully from that you can discern my position.
We’d rather not “discern,” that being a cousin of assumptions, but hear from you directly where you stand, especially on an issue of import to 13,000 students and 1,800 school employees: considering that the wording you chose (“I’m not opposed to…”) does not sound like a full-throttled endorsement, and that there are financial challenges ahead, are there circumstances where you might see the county moving away from that formula?
No. at this time there are no financial challenges or current circumstances that I anticipate that would move us away from the current formula.
6. Evaluate the county’s long-term plan to save its beaches. It signed on to a $100 million beach renourishment plan for just 2.6 miles of beach just in Flagler Beach. The cost is expected to increase by the tens of millions of dollars, with half that cost over the next four or five decades the county’s responsibility. It is now demonstrably certain that sea levels are rising, and Flagler’s revenue sources for additional beach protection are tapped out. How do you propose to pay for the next repairs should a hurricane like Matthew or even a strong storm with damaging surges strike during your tenure? How is beach protection not a losing battle?
Once the Army Corps of Engineers project is implemented, it becomes federalized. This means that the 2.6-mile section of Flagler Beach (one of the most vulnerable sections of our 18.2 miles) will get re-nourished by the federal government (no match required by the County) for the next 50 years in the event of a natural disaster that damages that section of beach. This is a vast improvement over what we have today for that 2.6- mile section of Flagler Beach — for today we have nothing. I voted for this project for three reasons. First, it is critically important to repair the dunes and re-nourish the beach in that section. Second, it protects A1A and protects all the residential and business owned property. Most of the original $6.2 million in local matching dollars required has been made up through credits and help from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection. Lastly, I was not committing future commissions to any required spending. The ACOE agreement for the 10-year interval re-nourishing is dependent on the commission at that time voting to provide the required matching dollars.
Flagler County’s beaches, as do all the beaches in Florida, benefit the entire state. We need to continue to take advantage of State and Federal dollars to do beach repairs and work with our legislators to make sure that enough dollars are built into future State budgets to do that. We are moving in that direction as this year’s budget had $50 million for beach re-nourishment.
You are correct about the Army Corps’s federalization aspect: in natural disasters, the federal government pays for all beach rebuilding. But the agreement you signed in fact pledges the county to paying of finding funding for fully half the cost of every renourishment outside of potential disasters. The current cost for the 50-year life of the project is $100 million. The cost is expected to grow significantly. The current round is paid for, thanks to the federal share and the money the county secured from the state. The rest is not paid for, but pledged out of currently nonexistent funds–assuming of course that the project goes through (a huge assumption, now that the administrator has called it close to “dead in the water” because of those few property owners’ refusal to sign easements.) If the project goes forward, you state that “I was not committing future commissions to any required spending.” But you are–if the beach is to remain federalized through the 50-year life of the project. Once Flagler opts out of future payments, so does the federal government opt out of its obligation to federalize future disasters. Those are the terms of the contract you signed, here. Why then should residents not see the renourishment approach as very much of a very temporary fix measured by the term of a commissioner rather than by the 50-year life of the contract?
I disagree with your interpretation of the termination section of the contract with respect to repairs after natural disasters that would be paid for by the federal government as part of the 50- year contract.
My answer to the previous question addresses some of your question.
We have spent millions of dollars over the years acquiring environmentally sensitive lands. We are still building that fund through an ad-valorem tax levy. The westside drainage project will have as one of its goals the reduction and elimination of runoff of chemicals and pollutants into Dead Lake and Crescent Lake. The Bay Drive Park water collection process and Marineland Acres drainage system will also help reduce runoff into the Intracoastal. We need to continue to work on options and a long-term plan for septic to sewer conversions, especially on the barrier island. The latest state budget allocated $2.5 billion over four years to protect water resources and another $150 million is proposed for water quality improvements. These are potential sources of funds to help with our local projects. I personally believe that septic to sewer conversions is something we need to get moving on. Unless there are existing entitlements or a compelling issue I am not aware of, I would be hard pressed to approve any future development on the barrier island that did not have sewer and water service.
8. The population of Flagler County has increased almost two and one half times since the main library opened in 2001. Yet current funding for the library is approximately the same as it was in 2007. What are you willing to do to restore some financial balance to the system, reflective of the 50,000 cardholders it serves? Library administration and the Library Board of Trustees have determined that a library branch is badly needed in the southern part of the county. The county has picked out a site near the Government Services Building, but year after year has not funded it. What are you willing to do to see that a library branch is constructed?
We have identified land to purchase for the Southern Library Branch. I agree that the need for an additional library is well documented. The problem will only grow more acute as the population increases over the next 15 years. I believe that libraries are not just about books any longer — libraries provide many important services and functions, including community meeting space, educational and informational resources for all ages, computers, and access to online resources. A robust library system helps level the playing field across all socioeconomic demographics and are essential to every community. Library expansion is part of our current strategic plan, and it needs to get done.
9. For all the county’s claims of tackling homelessness, it has done little more than push the homeless to different encampments after fencing in the public library site on the claim, later proven inoperable, that it would build a sheriff’s district office there. What’s your plan for homelessness?
I am committed that we continue to provide services to the homeless through the County’s Human Services Department. The County should continue to encourage and support the work of non-profits and religious organizations. I also believe that we need to work on having better data on the homeless population, how people moved in and out of homelessness and where the pockets are so that we can do a better job of outreach to provide services. Some cities around the U.S. have had good success in addressing homelessness assistance by investing in data analytics. This is a community-wide effort between local governments, religious groups, hospitals, medical providers and nonprofits to input data into a common system that can be used to better understand the problems, services needed and then target services for maximum impact. Our current situation is that we have many groups in Flagler County that are well-meaning but working in silos, which is not an efficient way to work at the problem. I am in favor of the County taking the lead on developing the analytics.
I made the case for revising the County’s Economic Development process. I did so, because in my analysis over time and during my involvement in the department’s activities, what we were doing with respect to attracting new businesses to Flagler County and working with existing businesses was not working. The results were insignificant. The county saved almost $400,00 by reducing the department. I believe local governments should support economic development activities, and the public investment needs to be predicated based upon the size and situation of the community. In my analysis, our role should be reactive and supportive on prospecting and more active on retention and expansion of existing businesses. This is what is working in other similar-sized counties and communities in Florida.
Currently, we should support one full-time-equivalent employee for Economic Development activities. That position should be responsible for new inquires and fulfillment of information requests from prospects that inquire about Flagler County. The position should work with community partners such as realtors, business groups, regional partners such as JaxUSA, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and the municipalities. It is difficult to compete with large metros and counties on recruitment of prospect businesses. I do not currently see the private sector forming a public-private partnership for economic development in Flagler County, but I will support one if it develops. Hopefully, a new Chamber of Commerce comes first.
11. Evaluate the performance of County Administrator Jerry Cameron, listing strengths, weaknesses and areas of concern. In the next four years the commission will very likely face another search, given Cameron’s Methusalahian status. What skills will define the sort of administrator you will look for?
Jerry Cameron has done a very good job in a tough situation. The original intention was for him to have a very short-term tenure, but through his request and the need of the Commission for some stability in the near term, it has evolved to a longer-term horizon than originally planned.
Strengths: Maturity and calmness, honesty, in-depth understanding of how county government works, politically astute, respected leader, good communicator, superior work ethic and process driven; keeps deadlines and stays focused on priorities given to him by the commission. Team builder and coach.
Weaknesses: Still learning the history of the many and varied relationships of people and institutions in the county. He does not have local institutional knowledge because he hasn’t been here that long and has been laser focused on the daily priorities of the job. A good way to understand this point is to contrast the institutional knowledge that County Attorney Al Hadeed has due to his many years in Flagler County.
I see the recruitment and hiring of a new administrator as one of my critical roles over the next four years. Cameron has many of the skills I want to find in a new Administrator as stated above. In addition, we need to identify a candidate that has strong strategic planning skills and is technologically literate and driven. Someone that is willing to embrace and deploy new technologies in the daily operations of government. One example of this is the emergence of 5G technology. This will create many opportunities for local governments to make better data-driven decisions and create efficiencies in operations. We will need an Administrator that can drive this throughout the entire organization.
Team builder and team player. I believe we are at a critical time with the senior management team, and I predict there will be some turnover or retirements over the next few years. That will require we hire someone that can build a strong team for the future. The projected growth will force the growth of some of the departments, and we will need a strong senior management team that can recruit and retain the best people.
Do you see any potential next administrator within your ranks, or within those of any government or agency in Flagler?
There are certainly qualified candidates within Flagler County. I believe we need to do a nationwide search, be transparent throughout the process, and hopefully do it in an orderly manner.
12. We currently have five white Republican men as county commissioners on a commission that’s never elected a Black or Latino member, though every other local government has seen minorities elected. Does the commission have a diversity problem? Explain how you have reached or would reach out specifically to constituencies that don’t mirror the commission’s demographics.
There are things I cannot change. I cannot change the color of my skin pigment; I cannot unlearn 60 years of life experiences that define who I am.
I can and do strive to constantly shift my paradigm so that I can try and understand that other person’s life experiences, and in many cases struggles, bring them to see things from a different perspective than mine; to avoid imposing “otherness.”
I can also seek to find common ground of life experiences that we share, and which help relate to other persons. All people, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, etc., have experiences as parents, grandparents, family members, neighbors, business owners, etc. These common experiences help us to relate to each other and understand things from the other person’s perspective.
I can and do try to structure my daily activities and public activities as a commissioner so that I have daily interaction with many different groups and citizens throughout Flagler County. Whether it is being a member of the Rotary Club, meeting with concerned citizens on mental health issues, attending events for the Family Life Center, attending services at Beth Shalom Temple in solidarity after the killing of innocents in Pennsylvania or volunteering at Feed Flagler activities. I have done these activities throughout my time in Flagler County, they have increased over time, and I earnestly strive to be consistent and reliable. Most importantly, my community service affords me the opportunity to meet and interact with many people from all types of backgrounds and experiences, and I believe it has had the cumulative effect of making me a more empathetic person.
Lastly, over my 30 years in Flagler County, I have built a diverse group of contacts, informal advisers, mentors and acquaintances that I rely on to provide perspective and guidance on any number of matters and issues.
13. Should you be held to account for what you display on your social media pages any differently than for what you would say anywhere public? Do you have different standards of behavior between the way you’d conduct yourself as an elected official—in a meeting, at an official function—as opposed to on your social media platforms?
Social media is public. Public officials always need to comport themselves consistently and across all venues. I always try to be respectful of others. While I am not perfect in my actions, I constantly remind myself that as an elected official, you are always on duty whether it is in-person, online, in email, on the phone or texting. For many years, I live by the premise that “everything is discoverable.” I remember the great Yankee ballplayer Derek Jeter once told an interviewer that the filter he uses for everything he does in life is “what would my parents think of my actions in this situation?” I think that is pretty good advice.
14. Have you ever been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor anywhere in Flagler, Florida or the United States (other than a speeding ticket), or faced a civil action other than a divorce, but including bankruptcies, or faced any investigative or disciplinary action through a professional board such as the bar or a medical board? If so, please explain, including cases where charges or claims did not lead to conviction or disciplinary action.
Arrested – No
Most everyone in Flagler County was affected by the deep recession, some more than others. I have had two financial judgments that were a result of the recession and trying to keep our business afloat. For me, owning a small business magnified the risk. I regret that we went through that period, but I also see it as a valuable learning experience.
I am currently reading The Conservative Sensibility, by George Will. The last four books I have read were: Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson, The Wealth of Nations Books 1 -3, by Adam Smith, and Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, by Joseph Schumpeter.
While all leaders are flawed, I admire the quality of toughness and perseverance displayed by Churchill throughout his life especially during the dark hours of World War II.